What to Bring on a Hike
When you’re thinking about things to bring when hiking, sometimes it can feel overwhelming.
You want to be prepared, but you also don’t want to carry 50 pounds on your back when you know you’ll likely end up carrying a tiny human at some point as well. 😬
So, what do you really need to take on a day hike?
Spoiler alert: That super handy ax might be handy if you ever need to chop a tree to make a fire, but you probably can find a lighter weight option to provide some warmth. And, probably leave less of an impact on the forest while you’re at it. 😉
When you’re heading out on the trail, there are certain hiking essentials you need to take with you every time.
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Otherwise, settle in for a minute or two (promise it won’t be too long) while I tell you a little story about the importance of packing the right gear on a hike.
Have you ever tried convincing a tired, hungry, thirsty toddler that they have to wait for food or a drink? I have.
0/5 Stars. Do NOT recommend. 😬
Years ago, we set out on a day hike when my oldest was about a year and a half old. I was pregnant with our youngest, and we were with a friend and her daughter, who was also about a year old.
We chose a relatively easy trail, and had what we really needed for our hike – or so we thought.
However, the hike that day wasn’t what we expected. A trail marker was missing, which ended up costing us valuable time before we realized our first mistake.
The sun was going down quickly, and it became immediately apparent that we were NOT prepared to spend the night in the woods (mistake #2). But, we really had no idea how long it would take us to backtrack and finish the right trail back to our car.
We also had not told anyone exactly where we were hiking. ←Mistake #3
And, then we came to the spot where we were supposed to cross the river…and there was no bridge.
No log to balance on as we tried not to fall in with toddlers on our backs. No rocks to step on either.
We walked up and down the river bank for a bit, trying to see if there was another crossing we had missed. There was not.
By this point, it was dusk, and the temperature was dropping. And the river water was COLD.
You know how you know when things are getting really serious. Everyone gets silent and stuck in their own thoughts. Processing. Thinking. Strategizing.
That’s precisely what was happening as we stared at that river, trying to decide what to do.
We all knew how terrible this could end up if we weren’t smart. And we were suddenly incredibly aware of how we unprepared we really were.
This was the moment we realized that whether you’re heading out on a short family hike or planning an epic full-day adventure, you must have the right gear. Because, if you don’t have the right hiking equipment, you may find yourself in a situation that is uncomfortable at best – and downright dangerous at worst.
Below, we discuss the standard “10 Essentials” for hiking, our suggestions and thoughts on specific gear, as well as items that are nice to have – and what you probably should leave at home.
Depending on the climate or your activity, you may have additional items you would also want to add to the list – such as a locating beacon, etc.
10 Essentials (a.k.a. Hiking Equipment Must-Haves)
The Ten Essentials are a list of things to bring when hiking, each and every time. In addition to this list, it’s also important to note that it’s always a good idea to also let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back. That way, if something does go wrong, you’re prepared to deal with it (because you have all your hiking necessities). Still, you’ll also have someone who can call in backup if you don’t return when you are supposed to.
When I was getting this post ready, I was curious where the 10 Essentials originated and who came up with the original list. So, I did a little digging. According to both REI and Wikipedia , The Mountaineers organization (based out of Seattle) was the first to create the list. The goal of The Ten Essentials is to make sure that people are prepared for emergencies that can occur during outdoor adventures. It originally dates back to the 1930s, but they wrote up the official list that we’re familiar with now in 1974 in Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.
One of the most important things to have on a hike is a way to navigate. There are several ways you can do this. Whichever way you choose to navigate your hikes, it’s usually a good idea to have a backup as well.
We typically use a GPS app (Gaia) on our phones. However, we are getting in the practice of carrying a paper map as a backup along with a compass. If we can, we prefer to have the waterproof physical maps, but, if we don’t have a copy, a printed paper map tucked in a ziplock bag also works to keep it dry – just in case.
One thing to note is if you’re relying on your cell phone as your GPS, you’ll want to make sure that you have a fully charged battery. You may also want to carry a portable battery charger just in case.
A lot of the hiking we do is in the woods under cover of trees for large parts of the day. But, it’s crazy how quickly you can find yourself burnt after taking a break by a stream or lake. We always carry sunscreen with us, but we also try to make sure that everyone also has a hat and/or sunglasses with them. It’s a huge help to protect your eyes from the brightness and UV rays.
Even if you’re heading out in warm weather, it’s typically a good idea to bring an extra layer or two. You never know when weather patterns will change, and it’s always better to be prepared for rain, a dip in temperature, or the possibility of needing to spend a night outdoors. We typically try to make sure that everyone has a rain jacket and puffy or warm fleece layer at the minimum, but extra layers can also come in handy.
- Rain jacket and/or pants
- Puffyjacket or warm (non-cotton) layer
- Extra top and bottom layers that will dry quickly
Lighting or Illumination Source
If you happen to find yourself in an area without natural lighting or out at night, you will want some sort of light to help you navigate and find your way. There are several options you can choose from. However, a headlamp is one of our favorites as it leaves our hands free.
Although I also have to admit, they are apparently incredibly easy for kids to lose. 🙄 I think we might have to buy stock in Black Diamond…
- Headlamp, flashlight, and/or lantern
- Extra batteries
First Aid Items
Having a first aid kit when you are out can help in an injury or emergency. You can start with a basic pre-made kit and adjust it to fit your activities, the medical needs of the group, and the length of your trip. Or, you could totally make your own from scratch.
This list may not include everything you need, but it’s a great starting point with the basics to get you started if you decide to put together your own first aid kit. We’re always working on streamlining ours and adding to it as well. I’m actually currently in the process of creating a mini first aid kit for the kids to have on them as well, just in case they were to get separated from us.
- Bandages in various sizes, including butterfly
- Antibacterial ointment
- Headache/pain medicine – make sure to include children’s versions if hiking with kids
- Gauze and medical tape
- Antiseptic wipes
- Insect sting treatment
- Moleskin or blister patches
- Antihistamine (such as diphenhydramine)
- You could also add an instruction card on how to use items if you are not familiar with them and/or wilderness first aid booklet.
- It’s not always included, but we think that bug spray should always be included in your first aid kit as well…no one wants to be eaten alive by mosquitos!
- Any prescription medications you may need during your hike or if you were out overnight. For us, this includes an epinephrine autoinjector.
Don’t want to put your own together? We found this one that is for up to 4 people for up to 7 days and has a few extras too!
You may also want to include some or all of the following for a more complete first aid kit. Or, this kit is pretty extensive and designed for mountaineers. We’d still suggest double checking that you have everything you need (prescriptions, bug spray, etc.), but it looks like it is very well thought out for most emergencies.
- Splints, elastic wraps, cleansing pads, liquid bandage, non-stick dressing, etc
- Eye drops additional pain medications such as aspirin, poison ivy treatment, prescriptions, epinephrine, Immodium, antacids, etc.
- Multitool or pocket knife, cotton swabs, thermometer, syringe, scissors, gloves, CPR mask, notebook/pen, oximeter, electrolyte packets for rehydration, etc.
- Lip balm, bug spray, feminine hygiene products, aloe vera
If you happen to find yourself in an emergency, having a fire source could be the key to saving your life. Fire can create warmth, a source for cooking, and can also be a signal to help you get found. Think how much more comfortable we would have been with a proper fire starter kit when we got lost! Options include:
Note: Before heading out, make sure you know current fire restrictions in the area you’re hiking so you can plan accordingly for alternate heating and fuel sources.
In one of the Facebook hiking groups I’m a part of, I just saw someone post that the soles on their shoes completely fell off during a recent hike! They had reached the top of a steep trail and had to make it back to the car. I can only imagine that some duct tape would have come in incredibly handy at that point.
Having some basic tools to make minor and/or temporary repairs can be incredibly helpful on the trail. We typically carry a knife or multitool. But we need to get better about adding some paracord and/or duct tape. I’m learning from someone else’s mistake this time!
- Multitool and/or knife
- Duct tape, paracord, and/or Gear Repair Kit
Food and Nutrition
Having proper nutrition is definitely important, and you should always hike with additional food. Ideally, you’d want food that could last up to an extra day, just in case of a change of plans. Things that are lightweight and high in nutritional value are most beneficial – think granola bars and trail mix over chips or items that need to be refrigerated.
- Food and snacks for the duration of your trip
- Food and snacks for an extra day
Need some ideas for easy to carry snacks? Check out our post on trail snacks (also known as “pocket snacks” in our house).
Water and Hydration
I know this one seems so obvious.
But, remember that hike? We were down to our last 16 oz bottle of water when we realized we were lost. For 5 people. It was not fun. We did not have a filter, LifeStraw, or SteriPen at the time. Now, we always carry more water than we think we need plus a LifeStraw even on a day hike.
Staying hydrated can obviously mean the difference between life and death. So, make sure to account for the additional water you may need. If you’re hiking in hot weather or if your hike is more strenuous, you’ll want to bring more than you regularly would drink.
It’s also a good idea to know where water sources are along your hike in case you need to refill. Do keep in mind, if you are obtaining water from a natural body of water, you will want to have a way to purify your water with you.
Basic Shelter for an Emergency
If, by some chance, you end up getting stuck outside overnight or during severe weather, having a shelter that can help to protect you from the elements can be crucial. There are several options that you can use to accomplish this goal, including lightweight options that are perfect for bringing on a day hike. A few choices are:
Extra Things to Bring When Hiking
But, there’s more than just the hiking must-haves above. We often take a few additional items when we head out on the trail that just make life a little easier. You certainly don’t have to take all of these, but you will find that having a lot of these on hand or getting them when you have the funds will make your trips that much better.
Maybe this should go under The Ten Essentials, but since it technically isn’t one of them, we put it down here. However, you do need some sort of pack or backpack to carry them in. Here are a few backpacks we would recommend if you’re looking for a new one.
- Mountain Hardwear Scrambler
- WANDRD VEER: This one is great because it also converts well for a travel backpack. I will say if you’re going to carry a very heavy load though, you may want one of their other options, like their new FERNWEH, which I’m dying to get my hands on! If you want to know more, click to read our full review of the WANDRD VEER.
- Osprey Sirrus 24 Women’s Hiking Backpack or the Men’s Version of the Osprey
- Gregory is another great brand for hiking backpacks, so we would check out one of these options as well.
One thing that we find incredibly useful to take with us is a trash bag. It’s perfect for our own trash – like FBOMB packets that can ooze a bit if you put them in your backpack after eating. Ask me how I know. 😬
So, we take a bag to be able to carry out our trash with a little mess. However, the other reason we carry a trash bag is to be able to pick up any trash that we may find along the trail. More often than not, during our hikes, we often find at least a few items that were dropped or forgotten or sometimes purposely left…😡
In light of the current situation, we also would recommend that you take gloves and/or hand sanitizer for picking up anyone else’s trash.
Treats (a.k.a. Motivational Snacks)
You wanna know what will motivate a 6-year-old to make it the last ¼ mile to the end of your hike? It’s definitely not baby carrots or raw broccoli.
Look, we really try to be as healthy as possible. But, we also think it’s all about balance. And, if our kids (or us – don’t judge!) need a little motivation to get to the end of our hike, I’m totally okay with that.
No matter what your treat of choice is, it’s amazing what a little
bribery motivation can do when everyone’s legs are getting tired.
One thing we always like to take with us is some sort of GPS, as we mentioned above. It’s typically our phone with a hiking app (Gaia is excellent for this).
However, as we start branching out and doing more challenging hikes and challenging ourselves and the boys, we are looking into additional GPS units. The goal is to have one that we can carry with us that would work without a cell signal to send emergency messages and alert search and rescue if needed.
For day hikes, it’s always our goal to have everyone do their serious business before leaving the house. But, no matter what, we’re all going to have to pee in the woods at some point. And, it’s always a good idea to be prepared if we have to poop as well. Our typical bathroom supplies for a day hike include:
- Small roll of biodegradable toilet paper. Though, our plan is always to pack it out anyway. But, if we happen to miss some or have a major issue, at least we know it will cause less impact.
- Sealable plastic bag for toilet paper
- The Tinkle Belle. Since I’m the only girl in the family, this one is only for me, but it is essentially a pee funnel that allows you to pee standing up. I love it because I don’t have to drop my pants to the ground while looking over my shoulder to make sure no one is coming.
- Some women also like to carry a Kula cloth. I personally haven’t tried it yet, but may pick one up soon. It’s not strictly necessary with The Tinkle Belle, however.
Lightweight Microfiber Towel
Lately, I’ve gone to adding a small camping microfiber towel to our day pack. It’s come in handy in multiple situations: drying feet after wading in the river, wiping rain sprinkles off glasses, a place to sit, etc.
Portable Phone Charger
When you’re relying on your phone for navigation, you may want to add a portable charger to your list of things to bring when hiking. Ideally, choose something lightweight and/or solar-powered. The one I have is heavier than I’d like to carry on a hike, so I’m looking for a new, lightweight one, but it’s better than nothing!
One thing to keep in mind is that portable chargers take a lot longer to charge your device than a standard outlet, so you’ll want to plan accordingly.
If you don’t have trekking poles, you can often find a stick that can serve as a walking stick, but a set of poles can definitely be nice to have. We’re actually in the process of making sure we all have our own set right now.
Last Few Items That Are Good to Have
- Permit/access pass for the area you will be hiking in
- Lip balm
- Plates/utensils/stove if you plan on cooking during your hike
- If you’re hiking with a pet, you’ll also want to include water for them, a bowl or way to let them drink, treats or food, a leash, dog bags, and perhaps a jacket if they are prone to getting cold.
Things You Should (Probably) Leave at Home When You Go Hiking
Of course, there might be that instance that an ax or hammer comes in handy, but for us? The chances of needing them aren’t high enough for us to carry the weight.
Instead, we take a good multitool or knife and have an alternate plan for an emergency shelter.
I’m sure I’m guilty of hiking in jeans at some point, but you couldn’t pay me enough to do it again. They are much heavier, restrict your movement more, and if they happen to get wet, they will stick to you and stay wet forever.
If they are all you have and the temps are supposed to be mild, you may decide to deal. But, even if you have a pair of workout pants or leggings, you will probably be a lot more comfortable due to the wicking and breathability factors. In fact, if I’m not wearing hiking pants, leggings are my second choice.
These Prana Halle Pants are some of my absolute favorite hiking pants and John loves the Prana Zion. They repel water, are lightweight and breathable, stretch and move with me, roll up if I get too hot, and dry SO fast. Plus, they don’t look as terrible as some hiking pants do.
Don’t get me wrong, I love cotton. And, I’ve totally been known to wear a cotton tank or t-shirt on a hike. But, I’ll also have another option in my pack as well that is not cotton.
In general, there are much better materials for hiking clothing. If you happen to get wet and cold in cotton, it’s going to stick to you and make you even colder.
Wool and performance fabrics will wick moisture away from you and dry much faster, making it much easier to regulate your body temp. So, whenever you can, we recommend choosing these options.
Too Many Extra Gadgets
Yes, the family who often carries a camera, chargers, and sometimes a drone is the one telling you this, lol! But, those aren’t really what we’re talking about.
We’re talking more about iPads, portable speakers, the Switch. It’s not worth the weight, in our opinion. The views and soundtrack of nature are better anyway.
Printable Hiking Checklist
The last thing you want to do when you’re packing all the essential gear for a day hike is to forget any of the must-haves and find yourself in an uncomfortable (or worse – dangerous) situation.
We don’t want you to have an experience like our hike years ago. So, we made this quick one-page checklist for you.
Grab yourself a copy here and print it out so you can always be sure you have the and print a copy of this checklist to make sure you have all the hiking equipment you need for your next adventure. laminate it, so it is reusable and waterproof!
We went one step further on the list and added the layers we typically take on a section of the list to take the guessing out of it for you.
What to Bring on a Hike: The Rest of the Story
Back to that day hike that could have been disastrous…
Eventually, we decided that we needed to cross the river based on the trail map we had for the shortest distance back to the car.
Our map, mind you, that was on our old iPhone. And, all three adults were dangerously low on battery power, and we had no backup (mistake #4). Which we were now using for navigation AND a flashlight since we had failed to bring one (mistake #5).
We removed our socks and shoes, made sure our pants were up as high as possible, and crossed the river in frigid water that was over my knees.
After trying to dry out as much as possible – I don’t even remember what we used. Probably a burp cloth or baby blanket if I had to make a guess – we put our shoes back on and continued on the trail.
As we crested a hill, we finally got a weak cell signal. Our friend, who was with us, was able to reach her husband and tell him where we were. We thought we were on the right path, so we set a time that he should send help if we hadn’t made contact.
We literally made it to the car with 5 minutes to spare before our “send in the troops” time.
Let me tell you, it was NOT a fun day, but it was probably one of the most valuable days we’ve ever experienced. Getting lost in the woods with two toddlers (while pregnant) and not enough supplies was something I never want to revisit.
It taught us that we must be more prepared. It taught us that even an “easy” trail can turn dangerous if you don’t know what to take hiking.
But, we’re incredibly thankful that we made it out safely and didn’t end up spending the entire night hunkered down.
Have you ever had any close calls on a day hike?
Related Hiking Posts
- Pocket Snacks: A.K.A. Trail Snacks
- WANDRD Packable Backpack Review
- Hiking for Beginners: Get Started with These Helpful Tips
- Hiking Etiquette 101: The Basics You Need to Know